The storefront of a gym with a branded sign hanging above that reads Athletic Outcomes.

How fitness became important to me

I never thought I'd enjoy exercise, but now it's central to my mental health.

During the pandemic, I think we’ve all needed to find ways to stay mentally sharp and emotionally stable. My natural disposition is to be pretty level. It takes a lot for me to get pushed over the edge and feel truly depressed. I wrote about that a couple of posts back, too. And I’ve learned over the last two years that consistent exercise is the best balancer for my mood.

Shocker, right?

The thing is, I’ve never liked exercising. When I “played” baseball in high school (I was co-captain of the bench), conditioning was the worst. When we had to run a mile in 5th grade or junior high, I was always the last one. My best experience with fitness was my senior year of high school when I took a free weights class at the local community college to fulfill my PE credits.

Mostly I just had a fast metabolism that didn’t catch up with me until after college. I was always skinny, could eat anything, and didn’t think I needed to work out. It wasn’t until I was working stressful jobs and became sedentary in front of a computer that all of that caught up to me and I started gaining weight.

And when we moved to Austin, there was so much good food, a cocktail scene, and craft beer… but it still took six years for me to do anything about it. There were times I tried running, but I hate running. I’d take the pup out for a long walk when the weather was nice, but he’d get tired before I did. Soon, I just gave up.

In 2018 my wife found a trainer for me and he helped me shift my thinking about fitness. The way fitness is talked about in our society puts all the emphasis on weight loss and very little on actual health. Working with Colin helped me realize that building strength, improving how I move, and getting healthier were the things that would make the biggest difference to me in my daily life.

I started with training twice a week with him and an independent gym here in Austin. We did a lot of work with kettlebells, barbell deadlifts and back squats, dumbbell presses, mobility, balance, TRX, and cardio on the rower or Assault bike. We paid attention to my sleep and I started noticing how much better I performed when I got the right amount and quality of sleep. I noticed how that quality plummeted with late-night alcohol.

We also started paying attention to my diet. I thought I was decently aware of what and how much I ate but was surprised at just how many carbs were going into me, even “healthy” ones from fruit. So I started tweaking things, optimizing a bit here and there. Eating 2-3 eggs for breakfast instead of oatmeal or toast.

As I felt more in control of my diet and sleep, I gained more control over my training intensity and weight capacity. I got strong. Really. I heard from a mutual friend that Colin had described me as going from “typical tech dude to badass.” That felt good to hear. And I felt good. I was holding myself better, pushing myself harder in the gym. My clothes fit better. I slept really well.

The weird thing though. I never lost weight. I changed a lot physically but always hovered within 5lbs. And I kept bringing it up to Colin. He kept reinforcing that if I wanted to lose weight what I needed was a calorie deficit, but that health is the more important thing. I was losing fat and replacing it with muscle, but we had 35+ years of doing nothing to contend with.

I think through my training journey the most important result has been the shift in my thinking. My friend Rob (his newsletter is great) tweeted yesterday that he was feeling the weight of everything going on so he worked out and felt immediately better.

This probably rings true for a lot of people. Scientists and fitness experts talk about the endorphins that get released during exercise. I explain it to myself in simpler terms. When I have a truly good training session I am just too exhausted to deal with anything else. My mind is worked out, my body is useless, and I am totally spent. How is there room to worry about what’s going on anywhere else?

And I think these moments of self-centered exhaustion are important. Sure it may only last a few hours, but the lightness of being when you literally can’t is spectacular. Probably even healthy.

A couple of months ago my trainer decided to transition to being a digital designer and stop his training business. If I’m honest, financially it was good timing for me. A personal trainer isn’t cheap. But I found a lot of value in having his support and expertise. We spent the last 4 weeks of our time together talking through my goals. He taught me how to program my own workouts, what to look out for, how to measure my progress.

I never thought I’d be one of “those people” and I’m still a ways off from having a completely active lifestyle. But if I miss a workout for a few days, I feel it. I miss it. I want to get moving again. My mood suffers.

Two months on my own and I may not be getting three training sessions in every week, but I’m still getting stronger. I’m trying to be consistent. And I’m still getting after it.